FDR and the Modern Presidency: Leadership and Legacy

By Mark J. Rozell; William D. Pederson | Go to book overview

2
Uprooting the Presidential
Branch? The Lessons of FDR

Matthew J. Dickinson

Since at least the 1974 Watergate scandal, with its revelations regarding ethical and legal improprieties by Richard Nixon's closest aides, political scientists and other presidency watchers have warned about the dangers of excessive White House staff size, politicization, and functional specialization.1 The growth of this "presidential branch," critics argue, has warped the constitutionally mandated system of separate institutions sharing power.2 Rather than the "energetic" executive envisioned by the framers of the Constitution, we have instead an "imperial" presidency, supported by a White House-centered staff system frequently lacking ethical guidelines, analytic capacity, or democratic accountability.3

Presidents are not oblivious to these warnings. Even before Watergate, Nixon, alarmed at the rapid growth of his White House staff, had begun scaling it back. However, he also proposed investing more authority in a few senior White House aides, thus elevating them in power above most of his cabinet secretaries.4 The sentiments underlying Nixon's administrative strategy have been shared by most of his successors; while almost all agreed to trim the size of the presidential branch, none seriously considered plans to uproot it.5 Bill Clinton's effort to reduce the size of the White House office by some 25 percent is a case in point. Critics carped that by obfus

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